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Institutional Alzheimers: A Culture of Secrecy and the Opacity of #GAMEDEV Work
by Casey ODonnell on 02/20/14 03:39:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Cross Posted at Culture Digitally]

Yesterday, Todd Harper (@laevantine) tweeted a reflection on several other blog posts responding to recent news that Irrational Games was closing.

Both Leigh Alexander (@leighalexander) and Brendan Keogh (@BRKeogh) reflected on different aspects of the closing. Both of them expressed an awareness of the mundane reality for those working in the game industry (the "grunts") and the disconnect between that everyday labor and the very high-level perspective reflected in the post by Ken Levine. Leigh noted in particular her responsibility as a reporter and the tension between words passed between friends and her role as a game-industry reporter. Brendan indexed how despite a distinct awareness that any given game is a product of the labor of many, only a few often garner real fame or credit for the work. Credits matter, but not so much as press attention and visibility.

All of that said, at least Ken Levine wrote something. Numerous studios are shuttered or undergo significant employee cuts with zero insight or communication. Not that it helps those developers looking for new jobs and likely a fair number who will leave the game industry entirely. Remember, the average life-span for game developers is somewhere between five and eight years. Nothing like being let-go from a job to encourage one to consider another career.

I have also been thinking a great deal about Cara Ellison's (@Carachan1) mission to bring "embedded games journalism" to life. So much of what Cara is attempting to do is in line with what started as a dissertation for me and will soon become a book, "Developer's Dilemma" from MIT Press, which is currently in production. People want to know what game development is really like. The game industry needs some institutional memory, and it simply doesn't exist.

Despite the fact that increasingly we find more and more developers present on Twitter, actively blogging, and/or contributing to community sites like Deviant Art, a sense of transparency into the daily work and creative labor that goes into games seems not just absent, but actively combatted. Even when developers talk about the tools they use, like FlashPunk, Flixel, Unity, etc., you don't get a sense of is how it fits into a kind of daily creative practice. Even the growing number of documentaries fail to capture the mundane, instead create a kind of Game Developer Reality Show.

I spent three and a half years doing ethnographic work at Vicarious Visions (VV), leading up to and after it was acquired by Activision. I maintain that my continued fieldwork likely benefited more from serendipity than any real skill or rapport on my part. But, during my tenure at VV as a participant observer, I observed numerous canceled, shipped, delayed, successful and not-so-successful projects. Things like the Nintendo DS + Guitar Hero attachment were never leaked, at least not by me. And while my actions were in-part governed by the American Anthropological Associations ethical guidelines, I was a significant risk for VV. Yet, I hope it was a mutually beneficial relationship. I remember sitting for a couple of weeks with a team working on Ms. Marvel as part of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 game. What was secret about all that anyway?

Put simply, the daily craft of game development work is embodied in those who participate in it. When the industry hemorrhages numerous skilled and experienced individuals, while they can (hopefully) find new jobs, no matter where they go, they must learn those day-to-day practices that constitute game development. New pipelines, tools, engines, rules-of-thumb, standards, etc., must be re-learned. It has been a goal of mine, and I hope Developer's Dilemma helps, to make the daily work of game development more visible. In particular, World 6's Boss Fight, I discuss what I refer to as Institutional Alzheimer's:

The game industry needs to become more open for its own survival and growth. Ultimately this openness must occur both at the lowest and highest levels. Game developers must be able to converse broadly about the practice of game development. Publishers and manufacturers need to be able to differentiate between talking about how one goes about making games and "giving away" a game. Many software companies have made numerous aspects of their work and work processes available online to foster a community of practice. The important difference is that for game companies this openness would go beyond releasing the "source code" of a game. It would also document and reveal how artists and designers went about creating and working within the source code of a game: how they created content and data, which then resulted in a game. Useful discussions should involve samples of real data that artists worked on and their process to get it into the engine. Designers should be able to document and explain how data combined with artistic assets and how it mobilized the source code to create a game. 


Once networks and structures shed the veil of secrecy, teams will have the opportunity to make the numerous design decisions and their impacts visible. Making more transparent the effects of sudden shifts of scope or design dictates from other interests can provide insight into the lived realities of game development. Collectively this information may encourage developers to work with particular manufacturers and publishers in favor of others that detrimentally affect the work practices of developers. Transparency may also help publishers and manufacturers understand why developers are resistant to dictated shifts or changes. Improved visibility could provide publishers and manufacturers insight into when and why studios or development teams are not moving forward successfully. Transparency cuts in numerous directions, all of which would seemingly benefit the game industry.

Transparency will begin to demystify the game development process, so new conversations can begin about these processes, discussions that are explicit and clear rather than general and vague. Companies can discuss aspects of game development that have historically remained closed. More than anything, opening up will encourage game developers to think of themselves in a broader collective context, rather than as individuals in individual studios scraping against all odds against their fellow developers.

Yet, even as several researchers like Jen Whitson, John Banks and others work to develop "Studio Studies," as a sub-field within Game Studies, I worry about the fundamental viability of such a thing. I see it as crucial to a broader understanding of what game development work is and how it unfolds. I've written about it, though in a more academic fashion.

But the reality of this kind of research is that access is one of the most fundamental issues, despite the care that those involved feel for their sites, as others like Ian Condry have noted:

"I failed to get access or interviews far more often than I succeeded. The collection of examples I report on here arose because of the goodwill of people who often didn't know me well and for that I am grateful. I hope I'm not too grateful. The anthropologist Brian Moeran(1996) notes an interesting by-product of fieldwork in his ethnography of a Japanese advertising agency – that is, his fierce loyalty to the firm he studied... from The Soul of Anime pp. 5-6

As an anecdote, while I was back in Upstate New York to deliver a talk about more recent research, I scheduled a bit of time to sit down with old friends at VV. I was relegated to "the kitchen," after having previously been free to roam and converse with developers. Perhaps more than anything, I was struck by how few of my informants remained. It makes sense, I suppose, that six years later only a handful of those "grunts" who I believe had defined the studio remained. Perhaps it was simply bad timing. But the experience reminded me of the fragility of access and the dominance of the culture of secrecy within the industry.

The massive layoffs and shuttering of Irrational Games is part of a broad set of practices that ultimately contribute to the Institutional Alzheimer's of the big-bad-AAA game industry. Occasionally it results in beautiful new projects on the part of those who find themselves without jobs, but more-often than not it contributes to the continued infancy of the industry. It's time to distinguish between real secrets and just the stuff that goes on day-to-day.

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Michael Joseph
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recently Double Fine has been broadcasting their Amnesia Fortnight

live-streaming game development over the past few years has started to become a marketing tool. Double Fine's production values are certainly higher than the lone wolf developer streaming his desktop.

If you search youtube you'll find a lot of past game development livestreams. They may not all showcase the goings on inside big budget AAA studios, but they do provide insight into the process.
Elysian Shadows

Casey ODonnell
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Live-streaming is definitely another chink in the armor of the culture of secrecy and its great raw data. That's a great point.

It could be interesting for someone to look at long term. I still don't think its the same as having people in/around a studio watching/listening/talking with others to help generalize what one sees. It's one thing to have a firehose like live-streaming, but another to have someone who watches the firehose and helps make sense of it. :)

It's also important to say that what's going on at is more about marketing and an extension of the documentary project. It really isn't the mundane. What Jami Fristrom is doing with and like the Elysian Shadows YouTube channel you mention are what I'm hoping for.

John Trauger
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Patent reform would help openness a lot.

Jon Jones
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I emphatically agree with your points about information-sharing and documentation. In fact, I've spent nearly 11 years blogging and writing about art production and outsourcing best practices for games to help develop and share best practices.

However, man.. "Alzheimer's" is a very unfortunate label to have used here. It also honestly doesn't even apply colloquially. Alzheimer's is a horrible, debilitating disease, and it's more than just "being forgetful." It's complete cognitive deterioration that can (and does) progress to the point that a husband no longer even recognizes his own wife or children, or remembers their names. They know something is wrong with them, but they don't know what or why, and they have to live through feeling their own brain dying. They gradually lose the ability to remember words and concepts, to read and write, to remember their own lives and family, and can lead to extreme emotion and even aggression and violence. It's a horrible disease.

In advanced stages, they are completely unable to take care of themselves, and have to either live fulltime with their family, or live in a nursing home or assisted living center (which are often horrible, depressing, and usually end up shortening their lives even further due to disease and lack of care), then are left to wither until they die of the complications that arise from the disease. Watching that happen to a family member and seeing the incredible suffering it can cause to them and all their loved ones is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Using it in the context of an article like this looks like cheap clickbaiting.

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I find your usage of the disease's name for clicks to be tasteless.

Source: I watched my brilliant father suffer from Alzheimer's and deteriorate for years, then die slowly and painfully from the complications it brought on.

Casey ODonnell
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Let me first of all say... It’s cool to be a wet blanket and more importantly, I'm sorry for what you've experienced. The reality is f*cking brutal and you are right. My grandmother died from the sh*t that goes along with dementia and I really fear that my mom may be going that route too. I'm glad you wrote what you did. I'm also glad that between FaceBook and Gamasutra that I can reply.

Alzheimer's is a horrible label and I used it for a reason. It wasn't link bait and it wasn't callous. It was a reflection on listening and watching the game industry for nearly a decade now (2004-2014). The AAA game industry really does risk "complete cognitive deterioration," as you so aptly put. I look at annual turnover and the culture of secrecy and wonder how we've (yes, a "royal" we in the sense of us game developers) haven't fully died of the complications related to a culture of secrecy and demands from manufacturers and publishers that demand secrecy about the stupidest things.

In 2008 at an IGDA meeting in Albany I asked the crowd, "How many of you have ported TinyXML to the Nintendo DS?" 70% of the crowd raised their hands. How asinine is that? It is an open source project that they couldn't share with one another and the Nitro SDK is non-trivial to work with because of memory-pools (likely breaking NDA). All because the Nitro SDK is proprietary and covered under NDA. It is horrible and depressing that the AAA industry is shortening its own life because it can't stop its own disease.

I look at every studio closing as a kind of stroke or miniature brain-death within the industry, eating the lives of those that work and love it. It is the worst kind of death. Mid-sized studios were the one glimmer of hope I had for sustainability in 2008. This isn't cheap clickbaiting, but part of my desire to bring my critique directly to the developers that have the opportunity to change the industry.

This was just a first volley of posts I'm going to make, probably pissing people off, but hopefully galvanizing them. My book, which comes out in the fall really attempts to encourage rank-and-file developers to think about their relationship to those structures and companies that they work within/without and question them. Boss Fights in the book, "require that a player bring the lessons learned to bear in order to progress to the next World. Think of it like a test. Bonus: I get to take the academic gloves off."

When I used the word "Alzheimer's," I knew that it would jar people, but not because I wanted them to click or somehow click-into what I was say, but instead really reflect on the reality of work in the game industry. It's kinda f*cked up. Too many people garner too much attention and those that make up the grunts love the work enough that they don't call truth to power. It happens once a year at GDC rant sessions, but that's about it.

You're right. Alzheimer's is an awful disease that no one and no one's loved ones should have to deal with. But when I really look at the AAA industry's work practices that is precisely what I see.

Casey ODonnell
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This came up on CultureDigitally, where I posted a response as well. I'd still welcome your reflections on mine. Because I do take it seriously:

Ben Dupree
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There's literally hundreds of game developer and art conventions, where every step of the process is illuminated by developers worldwide, thousands of websites, forums and on line learning sites where you can get in direct contact with industry professionals and learn every single aspect of game or 3d art development, from concept to coding to marketing. Every software developer usually has it's own learning centre, not to mention all the game dev and game related art magazines where creators from all over the world contribute with the latest developments and techniques in the industry, all available for us, the reader/viewer.

I fail to see exactly how the industry lacks transparency concerning the game dev process. From what I see "game journalists" aren't really interested in the game dev process at all but rather in getting the latest scoop on things like in-house politics so they can stir up some drama under the guise of exposing supposed industry malpractice. I'm not buying it.

Casey ODonnell
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Hehe... I'm enjoying the continued title of "game journalist," because I'm a social scientist relating his work to the things I read written by game journalists. I also don't think I'm "stirring things up," but commenting on what I see as the implications of the decline of the mid-sized studio.

@Ben, you're right that there are lots of venues to learn the generalities of game development... and I can't contain a whole book here in a blog post, but places like GDC are great ones where ideas and information do flow more freely. But it is also about institutional memory. Not sure if you're familiar with the term, but, as I said above:

"Even when developers talk about the tools they use, like FlashPunk, Flixel, Unity, etc., you don't get a sense of is how it fits into a kind of daily creative practice." AND "Put simply, the daily craft of game development work is embodied in those who participate in it. When the industry hemorrhages numerous skilled and experienced individuals, while they can (hopefully) find new jobs, no matter where they go, they must learn those day-to-day practices that constitute game development."

I'm not trying to "stir up drama," but rather point to the fact that retaining skilled game developers is key to the institutional memory of the industry. Even when people move around, it takes time to re-tool at a new company. Processes, tool-chains, etc all differ. So even the best developer takes time to ramp up when they find a new home. If they find a new home. If they don't leave the industry.

Wylie Garvin
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What other industry has this "institutional memory" that game development supposedly lacks?

Every industry is full of worker bees doing mundane day-to-day things. Every industry involves some work that needs to be kept entirely confidential because certain parts of it are sensitive for one of a variety of reasons (contractual obligations to other companies, marketing reasons, security-cleared work for the government, etc.)

Its not obvious to me that the game industry is any worse about this than other industries. It does keep a lot of details confidential during development, but it also shares a lot of general techniques and advice across the industry through venues ranging from GDC to individual developer's blogs. Many state-of-the-art techniques are freely described to direct competitors in those venues, because the inventors know that duplicating that technology is a lot of work even after you are handed a general outline of how to do it.

And most of the game developers I've talked to, want to see the best possible games get produced, even by their direct competitors. Because better games is a win for everybody, and we want to play those better games ourselves!

Edit: if on the other hand, the basic complaint is that the game industry drives away most of its skilled employees within 5-8 years.. then yeah, thats a long-term problem that the industry does need to solve.

Andrew Quesenberry
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Film and Television, actually.

I can go watch nearly 12 hours of video documenting every single part of how Lord of the Rings was made. If a developer works on a game, they can't speak about literally a single second of it, and can generally only say info that was either a) handed to them by PR or b) that one could easily learn by looking at the credits. Ever notice how you'll hear different things from different actors, directors, and writers of a movie or tv show (depending), but if you look for information on a AAA game, you'll basically find the same information repeated from each source?

Indie developers tend to be fairly open, but AAA developers have layers and layers of NDAs and threats of lawsuits on them such that they can't afford to talk about anything, especially negative things, without being completely anonymous and speaking about some anonymous company and an anonymous game they were working on. This completely removes accountability for the companies, because they can read these complaints on places like "The Trenches" and see that "well, some other company is doing terrible things to its employees, but surely it's not mine!" That's only if they even read them at all. Most of the time, change doesn't come about unless something like EA Spouses or Bondi Spouses happens. So the basic complaint is both that there isn't enough transparency or institutional memory, and that it causes unrealistic practices and a "use them and lose them" mentality among those in charge of the yearly grind.

Casey ODonnell
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I like your "on the other hand" reading better. ;) And it isn't a complaint (it is that too), but rather an argument that it's a bad thing.

Ben Dupree
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Pardon my attitude in my latest comment, that was bad form. You're right, I didn't quite get what you meant by institutional memory at first but I do now so thank you for the clarification.

I just don't know if I can agree. If there really was a problem with institutional memory and hemorrhaging of skilled and experienced people as you put it, surely there would be a tangible decline in qualitative output and production value and I don't see that happening, if anything it's the opposite.
There is an ever increasing amount of information available online provided by industry professionals, often very specific to certain workflows. But then again I don't know if specificity is all that important since production pipelines evolve all the time anyway, so even if the most experienced people were to remain in the same position for a long time, they would still have to continually adapt to the changes in technology and learn new production techniques that come with creating new IPs.

"...a sense of transparency into the daily work and creative labor that goes into games seems not just absent, but actively combated." - and - "Useful discussions should involve samples of real data that artists worked on and their process to get it into the engine. Designers should be able to document and explain how data combined with artistic assets and how it mobilized the source code to create a game."

That might have been the case once, but I'm not sure if that holds up anymore. There are indeed a few major companies that are very controlling and protective of their assets, and have based the decision to do so on certain business philosophies, but I truly believe they are on the decline. I think the industry is a lot more open and accessible now compared to let's say 10 years ago, so I think it's evolving in a good way.
Take Crytek for example, they have a vast community of developers that can provide you with detailed information of every single aspect of game development and engine implementation, for anyone who is interested and willing to put in some effort.

I hope I'm not missing the point you're trying to make and maybe I'm focusing on the wrong things but I struggle with terms like "culture of secrecy". I really think things are better now than they ever were, allowing people with enough dedication to become part of a fully fledged development team, often completely self-taught using little more than online recourses.

I may have misinterpreted it, but when I read the article I felt like it had little to do with the lack of transparency about the technical aspects of game development, and sort of misrepresented the game dev community as a whole, but rather used the closing of a company and the loss of jobs as a vehicle to condemn a particular business model that you personally didn't agree with.

Casey ODonnell
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I think things are different than they were in 2008, there is no doubt about that. Indies. Unity. AltDevBlogADay. Blogs. Twitter. I completely agree that in some ways it is very different.

You're right that I have conflated two different things a bit, because on the one hand I'm sad about experienced people losing their jobs and perhaps leaving the industry ("Brain Drain").

On the other hand I'm also saying that large-scale game development is still a largely opaque process. I think that goes hand in hand with the above brain drain. I think mid-sized studios know something about the game development process that is difficult to convey. My hope is that these mid to large sized studios would allow people in to document/think/write about development at that scale.

You'd be surprised by how many people "discover" game development practices that larger studios have known for years, mostly because everyone was so busy working that they didn't talk about them (maybe outside of GDC, but sometimes even then legal departments prevented those talks). So, things have changed, but there are still issues worth addressing.

I love that the World of Goo guys were so public about their development process and released their tech framework as open source. But even in that case, there was an art-pipeline for the game that no one knows about, which I think a lot of people would be curious about. People packed a Limbo talk a few years back where they talked about their tools... But even now, the tool isn't out in the world and I don't think Play Dead is using it any more... Perfect opportunity to share information about nuts and bolts.

Thanks for the discussion. Don't worry about your tone. I've enjoyed the discussion.